Friday, October 7, 2016

Do You Have to Teach Norse Myths in Waldorf Schools?

Rudolf Steiner must have said that Waldorf schools should teach Norse myths in 4th grade, right? Every Waldorf school does it, and it’s hard to come up with something more typical of what many include when they use the term “Waldorf education.”

Not so fast.

Here’s a note I received in early September from Adam Jacobs, a student at Rudolf Steiner College in Sacramento:

“I've been doing some research on Steiner, and nowhere can I find an indication where he recommends teaching Norse mythology in fourth grade. Clearly Steiner does have a reverent attitude toward it, above and beyond other cultures' mythologies (see Mission of Folk-Souls, lecture 9), but I'm not sure he recommends it in fourth grade.

Is this another Waldorf myth? Help!”

Here’s my reply:

“It's certainly true that the first series of stories that Steiner recommends (end of Discussions with Teachers, 1) does not include Norse myths, but refers instead to ‘stories from the ancient world’ and ‘stories from the middle ages.’

And I can't find it ANYWHERE in any of Steiner's first dozen series of lectures on education!

So I guess it is a ‘myth’ in the sense that it's crept into the curriculum as (ostensibly) ‘given’ by Steiner when, in fact, it appears not to be.”

And here’s part of his reply to my reply:

“…The arguments over whether or not we can replace Norse mythology are ad nauseum and, in my opinion, put up roadblocks for Waldorf education expanding in an international context. If people knew that his only indication was ancient stories, that would change the picture.

[Some] Waldorf teachers… would prefer to use Norse myths themselves, for whatever reason. [But], because they are actually deeply uncertain about the validity of that claim, they feel the need to hang it on the coat rack of Steiner. Through Steiner, as a divine authority, they claim the merciless authority to believe that they are deeply, irrevocably right.”

And here’s my final reply to the reply to the reply:

“The more I look, as with so many myths, the less I find. I believe that ‘ancient stories’ for Germans were, often and largely, Norse myths. But Steiner himself appears never to have prescribed them (it's harder to find what someone didn't say than what he did say!). This leaves us, as teachers of adults and of children, a lot more freedom--and less reason for dogma of any kind--to choose what to teach. Waldorf education, I find, is far more a method than a content, anyway.”

So, there you have it. Ancient stories, including but not limited to Norse myths. Thanks, Adam. Enjoy, everyone!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Does Teaching Literature Have to Kill It?

When I ask applicants to our high school what they’re reading, they almost always name a book that has NOT been assigned for school. They discuss it enthusiastically and tell me I should read it. Their eyes shine and their voices warm.

If I follow up by asking about a book assigned for school, their demeanor changes. They become subdued and thoughtful. Sometimes they can’t think of a single book that they have enjoyed; sometimes they can name one, but rarely with anything like the enthusiasm they bring to their “own” reading. They look down and fidget.

Yesterday, a current student said, “To Kill a Mockingbird would be a great book if it wasn’t required for school.”

That’s it in a nutshell: If, in teaching great literature, whatever that is, we leave our students lacking enthusiasm and interest, what are we really teaching?

Are there ways to teach literature that increase understanding and also promote enthusiasm and interest? I would like to believe that there are. But it seems even really fine teachers have very limited access to them… and that they’re hard to list or quantify; what works for one teacher may not work for all…

The only thing that reliably works for me is reading aloud to the class. (Some detail here.)

Other suggestions welcome…

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Have Better Faculty Meetings Now!

Here is the structure of weekly faculty meetings at the Berkshire Waldorf High School, which run 60-90 minutes and no longer. We begin around 3 p.m. and leave, in daylight, no later than 4:30 p.m., enough time for an hour at the gym and then dinner with the family.

2 min.
We read from Rudolf Steiner’s “Calendar of the Soul.”

15-30 min.
For the first part of our faculty meetings, we study an educational text by Rudolf Steiner. In the past few years, we’ve worked through Education for Adolescents, Towards the Deepening of Waldorf Education, and Balance in Teaching, and we’re currently well into Soul Economy. We read a paragraph at a time, passing the text from person to person. When necessary, we stop to discuss or question, as long as necessary. Our progress is slow, but we are thorough. Teachers bring in outside (non-Steiner, non-anthroposophical) research when relevant. Sometimes we read one paragraph that provokes discussion for the rest of our time; sometimes we read several paragraphs without comment.

One favorite story: In Education for Adolescents, Steiner makes a well-known and cryptic remark that posits the function of the human liver as analogous to the history of ancient Egypt (!). Rather than scratch our heads and read on, we decided to tackle this statement. Our life science teacher characterized the function of the human liver. And I, as a history teacher, gave a general overview of the history of ancient Egypt. By the end of this exercise—which took time in meetings over two weeks—it became clear that the concept of balance or homeostasis (and the expulsion of toxins) related to both. The liver “cleans” the blood and maintains many physiological balances within each of us. And Egypt shows remarkable balance in culture (religion, artwork) and politics through more than 2000 years of its history; and it repelled or expelled would-be invaders remarkably well.

5-30 min.
Any teacher may request any student be added to the agenda, but only for a positive, helpful purpose. In other words, you may not simply report that Giovanni isn’t doing his homework; you must have a suggestion for how we can help Giovanni get his work in on time. And the suggestion has to be something that isn’t simply to benefit your own classroom, but one that will benefit Giovanni or the school as a whole if the whole faculty knows about it.

Which of our students needs our attention? Is someone facing academic or emotional or social challenges? Is a clique forming? Are leaders leading? Do we have test results from a neuropsych or educational psych exam? Are there behavior challenges that we need to address? Do we need to place a student on academic or behavioral probation? Are new students integrating well into the school? Is a student not completing work? Do we suspect abuse at home? Have we learned something that it will be valuable to share among colleagues? Do we need to meet with a student? With his or her parents? With a couple of students? Or with a small group?

I often say that half of our work is to teach the subjects we are hired to teach, and the other half has to do with the growth, maturation, health, and development of our students. Without appropriate, constructive attention, we may teach math brilliantly but fail to assist a student who is floundering in any number of other ways. During this portion of our meeting, teachers compare notes, achievements, results, and impressions in order to help every student in the school who needs help. We do not have a “child study” form or ritual, but we try to conduct this part of our meeting with an eye toward our most important work: Teaching our students as well as we possibly can.

1-10 min.
What is coming up in the next week or so that we all need to know about? Field trips, open houses, changes in the schedule, school events, and on and on. Are we on the same page? Is everything planned that needs to be planned?

15-45 min.
Items include updating or clarifying policies and procedures; transportation planning (we’re almost a school without walls each afternoon, and making sure everyone who needs a ride has a ride takes longer than it does at many other schools); admission of new students (we have an Admissions Director, but, when each application is complete, it is brought to faculty meeting for a final decision on admission); reports on events and conferences; review of events just past in order to improve them for the future; consideration of student proposals (we are not a democratic school, but we include student views and ideas as much as possible).

2 min.
We read from Rudolf Steiner’s “Calendar of the Soul.”

1.     We give each item enough time for due consideration but no more. And each item may be considered only with a view to improving the school. You may criticize the way things are or have been done, but only if you have a reasonable, concrete, clear proposal for improvement. And if it becomes clear that we can’t reach agreement in a reasonable time, the item is tabled for the next meeting.

2.     We respect the school’s history, ancient and modern. We’re clear that, in the absence of a decision to change, the default position, for better and worse, is the way things have been. You don’t like the way the opening assembly was conducted? Suggest a change that we can all agree to, or it will continue as it has, whether you like it or not. The wheel does not need to be reinvented; but it benefits from evolutionary change.

3.     Our agendas contain no last-minute entries. Forgot to add something you believe is important? You’ll learn; and life will continue. We learned from Caroline Estes, who represents Native American and Quaker streams of consensus decision-making, that “there are no emergencies.” (When a rare real emergency pops up, there’s no time to decide if it’s an emergency or not. “The school is on fire; shall I put this item on the agenda? Or perhaps we should we just go fight the fire?”)

4.     Although all faculty members are solicited for agenda items, the Faculty Chair creates the agenda, allots time, and decides—in conversation with faculty members outside the meeting—which items either don’t belong on the agenda or may be addressed effectively outside the meeting.

5.     We are clear that there are exactly two decision-making bodies in the school—the Board of Trustees (which has responsibility for the financial health and legal representation of the school, for planning, and for fundraising—we are remarkably conventional in this; that is, like other independent schools) and the Core Faculty. Administrators shepherd items but do not decide. And items that require Board and Faculty consideration are sent to a Board-Faculty Working Group (that can only send items to the Faculty or the Board for eventual decision). This ensures that there is no “meeting after the meeting” at which decisions mysteriously change. Also, if you don’t speak your mind in one of these two meetings, you simply have no other avenue to be effectively heard.

6.     We work really hard to make decisions based on principle, not on particular circumstances or on personalities. And if a principle isn’t clear, we back up to clarify it for ourselves before applying it.

7.     Teachers and Board members serve on committees that may meet between Board or Faculty meetings, but, otherwise, we have no additional meetings in the week.

8.     We’re inclusive. Our admissions director, Board chair, business manager, part-time teachers, even parent volunteers are invited to our meetings. Yes, there are occasions when we have to ask someone to step out for a brief executive session, but it’s clear that these are times relating to possible conflict of interest or confidentiality. We have a circle of teachers and others committed to the school, not an “inner circle,” sometimes called a “college of teachers."

9.     We’re a high school incorporated separately from our elementary school. Concerned about student dress guidelines, for instance? We have our own, and don’t (often) have to worry about a conflict between high school dress and elementary school dress. To take a minor but annoying and persistent item.

10.  What? No group meditation? No. To our knowledge, Steiner never spoke of meditation as a group activity or as part of a faculty meeting.

Of course our meetings are not perfect, nor is our school. We’re human. Feelings get hurt. People are uncomfortable. People don’t get their way. The schedule isn’t ideal. The teaching isn’t perfect. But, by focusing on our purpose as a school, we’re pretty good at getting from week to week without profuse, lengthy, stressful, unproductive faculty meetings.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

“Love your duty.” Really? (More anthroposophical translation woes)

In several places, in English translations, Rudolf Steiner asks us to “love our duty.” I have heard sincere anthroposophists tie themselves into knots to explain this injunction, even when supported by Goethe’s definition of duty as what arises when we love what we command ourselves to do (paraphrase). And I have heard critics blast Steiner for contributing to authoritarianism in Germany before WWII.

But these interpretations, pro and con, miss the point.

By “duty,” Steiner does not mean what, say, the British navy means by it, as in Gilbert & Sullivan’s, “We’re sober men and true/And attentive to our duty.”

English is a Germanic language, and the German word “Pflicht,” translated as “duty,” entered English as a different word: “plight.”

“Love your plight” isn’t a more accurate translation, necessarily, but it does cast the statement in a different light.

We’re born into the world and, despite our best or worst efforts, face things that require us to act or not to act. This is our plight, and choice is our “duty.” (In this sense, “duty” assumes an almost existential sense, as in Sartre’s concept of an “original choice.”)

We can “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” as Dylan Thomas might have it. But look where he ended up. And look where we all end up. Could we, instead, learn to love the inevitable dying of the light, following a lifetime of loving what life sends us?

In “The Tempest,” noble Gonzalo loves his plight, and sees the island on which he’s (apparently) shipwrecked as “advantageous to life… how lush and lusty the grass looks.” While vile Sebastian, on the same enchanted island, sees no greenery at all. Their perceptions—and ours—mirror their inner states. And, to the extent that we may choose or improve our inner states, we may improve, if not our plight, at least our perception of it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why I oppose tuition remission

Tuition remission (for those who don't know) is the discounted tuition given to the children of independent (private) school teachers and, at many schools, administrators and staff. Most private schools offer remission of between 50% and 100% of tuition for the children of full-time and, in many cases, part-time employees.

Independent school personnel, in general, are often less-well paid than their public school counterparts, and they receive fewer benefits, as well. But tuition remission can be worth tens of thousands of dollars per year. And tuition remission is generally not taxed (I'm unclear of the law around this, and am simply writing based on decades of experience in private schools).

The rationale is that remission is a benefit that doesn't cost the institution much and that allows it to attract teachers--and their families--who might otherwise seek employment elsewhere.

But, especially at small, underfunded private schools like many Waldorf schools, the institution can't really afford to give away tuition, and may offer remission simply to compete for teachers.

Further, classing teachers and parents differently can cause unnecessary friction or tension between groups that need to work together in order to best educate the children at the school. If a teacher has a partner who earns a good living, for instance, remission may be unnecessary, and comparatively unfair.

And remission can cause friction among employees--let's say a part-time teacher gets it and an administrator doesn't. Wherever you draw the line, some won't get it who believe they should.

The solution is simple: Class all applicants for aid together, and offer aid with the policy that each deserving applicant will receive a package that makes it possible to attend the school.

Let's say that a school that costs $20,000 per year gives 80% remission to full-time employees. That is, full-time employees are asked to pay $4000. For some, this may be a stretch; for others, not. But why not ask teachers to submit financial aid forms along with everyone else (they'll have to do it when their children go to college) and offer them the same $16,000 discount as aid if they qualify? That way, everyone is in the same boat, and one source of friction between parents and teachers is eliminated.

I know that my view is not popular--teachers often feel underpaid and undervalued, and see remission as one redress for these situations. But I don't believe we can be idealistic only when it's convenient. Let's address issues of pay and value separate from remission.

The school at which I teach is entering its 15th year. We've never offered remission. We're fully enrolled for the coming school year. And we know we're all in it together.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Rudolf Steiner's Art History (Introduction by Stephen Sagarin; shameless self-promotion)

Click here to order Steiner's Art History lectures, with my introduction. No royalties, but glad these are available, with reproductions. 30% off for a limited time...

Friday, May 13, 2016

Rudolf Steiner’s Only Known Reference to a Nature Table

“You will remember something else that I have mentioned. When he was seven, Goethe built himself an altar to nature. He took his father’s music stand and placed on it plants from his father’s herbarium and minerals and crowned it all with a little incense candle that he lit by focusing the beams of the morning sun with a magnifying glass. This was an offering to the great god of nature—a rebellion against everything imposed on him by education. In the very essence of his nature, Goethe was always a human being longing to be educated in the way people ought to be educated today.” –Steiner, R., Practical Advice to Teachers, 104

Clearly, this reference does not mean to suggest that this is what teachers "should" do, simply that kleine Johann did this in rebellion against whatever he experienced of German education in the mid-1700s...

Do Germans or Austrians other than Waldorf teachers build nature tables, following Goethe?

Is there any other source for the nature table? 

Inquiring elves want to know.